GLOBAL: 'Loose' versus 'tight' countries

Estonia, Hungary, Israel and the Ukraine are among cultures that may be considered to be quite 'loose' in terms of socially accepted behaviours and tolerance whereas the 'tightest' countries - those that have many strong norms and a low tolerance for deviant behaviour - include Pakistan, Malaysia and India.

These are the findings of a study into the cultural differences between 33 nations by 45 researchers around the world. Almost 7,000 participants from the countries took part in the survey while the researchers also took account of how high the population density was in the year 1500, how many political and territorial conflicts the country had had in the 20th century, and how much it had been affected by diseases.

Writing in Science magazine, the authors say tightness-looseness is part of a "complex, loosely integrated multilevel system that comprises distal ecological and historical threats such as high population density, resource scarcity, a history of territorial conflict, and disease and environmental threats, broad versus narrow socialisation in societal institutions such as autocracy, media regulations, the strength of everyday recurring situations, and micro-level psychological affordances such as prevention self-guides, high regulatory strength, need for structure".

The researchers say their research advances knowledge that can foster cross-cultural understanding in a world of increasing global interdependence and has implications for modelling cultural change.

Anu Realo, a senior researcher of personality psychology at the University of Tartu in Estonia and one of the authors of the study, says that over the last few decades researchers have tried to explain cultural differences on a scale of individualism and collectivism but that this scale cannot explain everything.

Realo says the latest survey is one of the first attempts to analyse tightness and looseness of cultures within many different nations.

In the Estonian section of the survey, participants had to evaluate whether there were specific rules of behaviour for most types of situations. It also studied whether or not Estonians had a large degree of freedom to decide how they want to behave in most situations.

The results were used to create a looseness-tightness index that was later tested by additional questions describing specific situations. For example, participants had to evaluate whether or not it was acceptable to argue at a funeral, cry in the bank, laugh out loud on the street or blow one's nose in the cinema.

The survey showed to what degree people agree on what is the 'right behaviour' - whether one needs to follow carefully the culturally dominant norms and if or how much people criticise others or receive criticism when breaking the norms.

The researchers found that countries ravaged by ecological or historical dangers tend to be tighter: people in these countries expect more conformity to norms and provide more punishments for non-conformers. The tighter countries usually have a higher population density, possess fewer natural resources or agricultural land, suffer more famine, and have less drinking water and lower air quality.

Flooding, drought or tropical cyclones also contribute to the tightness of a country. The tighter countries had more conflicts with their neighbours between 1918 and 2001; they are also more autocratic, tend to harass dissidents, have less media freedom, more laws and regulations and utilise new technologies more slowly.

The tighter countries also have a higher ratio of police officers per citizen and fewer political and citizenship rights. Their population is more religious and less ready to protest, demand rights or sign petitions. On the other side, however, the tighter countries also have fewer murders and robberies than the loose countries.

The survey found that within natural or historical contexts, both tight and loose cultures might have a rationale. Researching the tightness and looseness of cultures helps to investigate cultural differences and also model their changes and development.